The Lord's Day Morning
May 31, 2009
“Lord of the Sabbath”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Turn with me to Luke 6, as we continue our way through the Gospel of Luke. This is a passage in which one of the familiar encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees occurs. Over and over in the Gospels we find places where the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ and the disciples’ practice of the observance of the Sabbath Day.
You know that the Sabbath command was a distinctive mark and sign of Israel. In Exodus, God told the children of Israel that the Sabbath was one thing that was going to set them apart from the nations. It had been given to them in the Ten Commandments as a blessing. You remember the children of Israel were a nation of slaves, and that meant that they had lived in forced servitude. They lived in forced servitude in Egypt for over 400 years. And so for four centuries their time had belonged to their masters. And at Mount Sinai, God said to them, ‘I am giving you seven and a half weeks of mandatory vacation every year. You may not work one day out of every seven.’ And so for seven and a half weeks, these people that had been in forced servitude every day of the year — their time was not their own — were commanded not to work themselves nor to force anyone else to work. And you can see immediately the blessing that that would have been to a nation of slaves, to have a day of rest.
That day was also meant to be a day of worship, and it set them apart from the nations around them. When their neighbors saw them pausing on the last day of every week to worship God, it set them apart as those who worshiped the Lord, the God of Israel — the one who had given them that Sabbath Day. In fact, that's the language that Isaiah uses about the Sabbath, that the Lord gave them that Sabbath and by that He sanctified them. He showed them that they were different from the nations by keeping that Sabbath.
Well, you know the story of Israel. Israel didn't do a very good job of keeping the Sabbath. In fact, Israel didn't do a very good job of worshiping the Lord God. Israel went after other gods, Israel didn't keep the Sabbath Day, and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the other prophets are filled with stories of their failure to keep the Sabbath that the Lord had given them. So Jeremiah tells us that God sent the children of Israel into exile in the year 586, for seventy years because of their failure to keep the Sabbath. When the children of Israel came back out of that captivity, they were like children who had been burned by a hot eye on the stove. They were determined that they were not going to break that Sabbath command again, the breaking of which had sent them into the servitude of the exile. And so their rabbis, their scribes and their lay leaders began to build laws around God's law to protect them from breaking that command.
In fact, by Jesus’ time there was an entire book of rabbinic teaching on what they were not to do on the Sabbath Day, and the Pharisees in particular were very, very nit-picky about what you could and what you couldn't do. In fact, one of the scribes taught that if you were to reap, thresh, winnow and prepare grain in a larger amount that that which you would have in a dried fig, you had broken the Sabbath Day. Now bear that in mind in the story that we're about to read. They were very, very particular about the observance of the Sabbath Day, and that sets the stage for this conflict that we see between Jesus and His disciples and the Pharisees.
Let me say that we live in a very different way, in a very different day and time than Jesus and His disciples did. We do not live in a time where people are scrupulous and nit-picky and obsessed about the Sabbath Day. In fact, most people don't care about it at all; it's a day to do whatever we jolly well please. And nevertheless, I think that there are some very important things that we can learn about how we keep the Lord's Day from this very passage today. I'd like you to be on the lookout for three things in this passage as I read it.
The first thing I want you to be on the lookout for in this passage is simply this: Jesus’ message to the Pharisees is not that they have made a slight overcorrection in their interpretation of the Sabbath. His message to them is that they have entirely missed the point of the Sabbath Day. So I want you to be on the lookout for that in the passage.
The second thing I want you to see is the example that Jesus gives of what He does on the Sabbath Day, because I believe that Jesus’ example of how He kept the Sabbath Day gives us a wonderful guide for how we ought to observe the Lord's Day.
And then, third, I want you to ask the question: In this passage, who is the Lord of the Sabbath? Because that, my friends, is really the most fundamental question of all. If you get that one right, almost everything else works itself out from there. So be on the lookout for the point that Jesus says they’re missing, the example Jesus gives of observing the Sabbath, and then who is the Lord of the Sabbath.
Well, let's pray before we read God's word.
Lord, this is Your word. We ask You that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it. We also ask that You would search us out by Your Holy Spirit to see if there is any unclean thing in us; that when You discover it to us in our hearts — for You will surely find places where we have fallen short of the glory of God and transgressed Your commandments — we pray that You would by Your Spirit bring it to our attention in such a way that we repent, and also in such a way that we run to the Lord Jesus Christ for His grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and are transformed by His sanctifying work in our lives. We ask this even as we hear the word read. In Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word. Hear it:
“On a Sabbath, while He was going through the grainfields, His disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?’ And He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’
“On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether He would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse Him. But He knew their thoughts, and He said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ And He rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’ And after looking around at them all He said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
In this passage, Luke, in recounting the hostile encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, is pointing us to something very significant about our hearts and about the Lord's Day. Over 150 years ago, J.C. Ryle said, “Our Sundays and how we use them is one of the most sure signs of our spiritual condition.” How do you use your Sunday? How do you use your Lord's Day? What's at the heart of your Lord's Day? Well, Luke is telling us something that not only reveals something to us about the hearts of the Pharisees and what was the heart of their experience of the Sabbath, but it forces us to look at our own hearts and ask us how we use the Lord's Day.
I. The Pharisees’ false approach to the Sabbath.
I want to look with you at three things. First of all, I want you to see what Jesus says is the fundamental problem with the Pharisees’ approach to the Sabbath Day.
There are two stories here…one where Jesus’ disciples are hungry. They’re ministering on the Lord's Day, they’re walking through a grainfield, and as they walk through that grainfield they just pick the heads of the grain and they eat. Now, this was not stealing. This was specifically allowed by the law. You remember you were allowed to pick the excess of grain in a field if you were hungry, and you were a poor person and you were going through. So the Pharisees interestingly don't accuse them of stealing. But what the Pharisees do accuse them of doing is breaking the Sabbath Day by picking that grain and rubbing it together (which apparently equaled winnowing it or threshing it) and then preparing it and eating it. And the Pharisees said they were breaking the Sabbath law.
Now you need to know very quickly there was no such law as that found in Moses’ law. This is their interpretation of how Moses’ law is to be applied in this particular situation, according to the teachings of the rabbi. And so what you have immediately is you have the Pharisees’ interpretation of God's word set over against Jesus’ interpretation of God's word, but you have the Pharisees accusing the disciples of the Lord Jesus of being Sabbath breakers.
Then you have another story where Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. Well, the Pharisees have a law about that, too! The Pharisees said it was okay to heal someone if they were in danger of dying on the Sabbath, but if they were not in danger of dying on the Sabbath you couldn't heal them. Now again, there's no passage like this anywhere in the Old Testament. This is based on the interpretations, the traditions, of the Pharisees and the rabbis and the scribes, not on the word of God. You have two cases in which Jesus and His disciples are brought under the searching charges of the Pharisees as those who are violating God's law by breaking the Sabbath, and in both cases Jesus responds in such a way to indicate to them that the problem that the Pharisees had was not even a misinterpretation of Scripture. It was deeper than that. Their misinterpretation of Scripture was based fundamentally on the fact that they had missed the whole point of the Lord's Day. They’d missed the whole point of God's giving the Sabbath to Israel.
You remember in Genesis when God rested on the seventh day, He rested on the seventh day not because He needed to rest, but because we needed to rest. So the Sabbath was intended to be a blessing to God's people. Jesus, in Mark 2, indeed says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, Jesus is saying the reason that God invented the Sabbath Day in the first place was for a blessing to us. He's infinite; He doesn't need to rest. We’re finite; we do need to rest. Therefore He provided for and even mandated rest so that we could neither deprive ourselves or others of the rest that we need. It's a blessing of God, but the Pharisees had turned that blessing into a burden because they had missed the fundamental point of what the Sabbath Day was about.
In an agrarian society, pausing from your work one day in seven was a way of doing two or three things loud and clear.
One thing that it did was it declared who your allegiance was to. I mean, if you’re in an agrarian society and your working is directly determinative of your eating, and you stop working–then whoever you stop working for must be pretty important! And so it sends the message that We serve God, and He told us to stop working.
Secondly, though, it lets you know that your trust is in Him. If you’re in an agrarian society where your working is directly connected to your eating, and you stop working — what does it mean? You've got to trust the Lord to provide for you.
And then, thirdly, what the Sabbath does is it allows you loud and clear to declare God is more important than any blessing that we enjoy on this earth — even food. God is more important than anyone else. So it's a way of declaring your allegiance to God, it's a way of trusting God, and it's a way of showing your utter dependence upon God, and of your recognition that God is more important than anything else. And the Pharisees had just missed the fundamental point of the Sabbath Day and they had turned the blessing into a burden.
And so when Jesus is first encountered as the disciples go through the grainfields, He responds by taking them to an Old Testament story. He says, ‘Do you remember I Samuel 21?’ (Do you all remember what happened in I Samuel 21?) David was on the run. This was during a bad time in Israel's history, and David was a fugitive against the forces of Saul and against the forces of the invading Philistines. And David and his band of soldiers were starving, and he went to Ahimelech at Nob, and he said, ‘Do you have any food that you can give me?’ And the priest said, ‘You know, I don't have any food here. The only food that I have is the showbread. It's the bread of Presence that sits before the Lord, and only priests are allowed to take the showbread. Lay people like you, David, can't eat the showbread.’ And David said to the priest, ‘But me and my men are starving.’ And you know what the priest did? He gave him the showbread. That is, that ceremonial law that said the showbread is only for the priests was trumped by the moral necessity of obeying the second great commandment, which is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You can't love God without loving your neighbor, and so when the ceremonial law comes into contest with the obedience to God in His moral law to love neighbor, the ceremonial law is trumped.
Isn't that exactly what's happening in the story of the Good Samaritan? You remember the three Jewish people that passed by the man on the side of the road. He's half dead…they think he's dead. One of them is a priest, one of them is a Levite…these are religious Jews. They pass by him. Why did they pass him on the road from Jericho? Because the ceremonial law says if you touch a dead body…what happens to you? You become unclean, and you can't go into the temple. You can't go into public worship if you touch a dead body. You’re unclean. And they were on their way to Jerusalem to do what? To worship. But the Samaritan — that filthy, unclean Samaritan — he takes care of the man, nurses him back to health, and sends him on his way. And who does Jesus say was the righteous one? The Samaritan. What had happened was those observant Jews had allowed their scrupulosity about the ceremonial law to keep them from doing what the moral law demands: Love your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus is making it clear there that there is such a thing as greater things and lesser things in God's law. And the Pharisees, you see, had gotten this completely upside down.
Think of the disciples. Here are Jesus’ disciples, and what are they doing on Sabbath Day? They’re traveling from town to town preaching the gospel, teaching God's word, turning people back to God, ministering to the poor and to the needy. Jesus is doing works of healing, and the Pharisees are all bent out of shape because they’d eaten a little something. Now this is not an elaborate meal, you understand, that they’d sat down to! They’d passed through the grainfields and they’d picked off some heads of grain. It wouldn't have been terribly tasty, but it would have given them some sustenance. But the Pharisees don't care a whit about the ministry that they’re doing. They only care that they've violated some traditional interpretation of theirs about how you’re supposed to keep the Sabbath Day.
Then there's the even more shocking scene where Jesus is in a synagogue teaching, and there's a man with a withered hand. And Jesus is going to heal this man, and the Pharisees know that He's going to heal this man. And so the Pharisees are concerned — what? — for that poor man who’d gone through life with a withered hand? No! They want to catch Jesus in a sin! Now whose heart is right in this circumstance? These people are more concerned about trying to find Jesus in a violation of the Law of Moses than they are in seeing a man restored to health. You know, you’d want to ask them: ‘So it's not okay for Jesus to heal on the Sabbath, but it is okay for you to plot how you can kill Him on a Sabbath? Help me here!’ And you know that's exactly what Jesus says to them. Look at what He says: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm…?”
Isn't it amazing that these men were all scrupulous about keeping the Sabbath, but it didn't cause them the slightest tinge of conscience that they were trying to use God's commandments to kill a man? And worse than that, the man that they wanted to kill was God in the flesh? Now, you see, their problem was not just a tiny over-correction in their interpretation of Scripture; their problem was they had missed the point. They’d missed the whole point.
Now friends, you don't have to be a legalist to miss the whole point of the Sabbath Day. You could be into your freedom and miss the whole point of the Lord's Day, so don't think that this is a problem just for the Pharisees. It's a problem for all of us. We can miss the point if our hearts aren't right, because you can't worship the Lord unless your heart is set on the right thing. And the problem began with the Pharisees not just with their misinterpretation, but within their hearts, being in the wrong place. The Sabbath was turned from a blessing to a burden, and it became a tool not for glorifying God, but for them a tool whereby they wanted to entrap and destroy a man. They’d missed the whole point of the Sabbath Day, and Jesus makes that clear.
II. How Jesus observed the Sabbath.
Secondly, however, I want you to see Jesus’ example of keeping the Sabbath in this passage. Jesus does three things in this passage that are a good example to us for how to keep the Lord's Day.
The first thing you’ll see is in verse 6: “On another Sabbath, He entered the synagogue and was teaching.” This was Jesus’ normal pattern. On the Sabbath Day, where is Jesus? He's in corporate worship with the people of God. That's where we ought to be every Lord's Day, in corporate worship with the people of God. When we do that, we're just following Jesus’ example.
Secondly, Jesus makes it clear that the Sabbath Day is a day when it is lawful to do things that have to be done — “deeds of necessity” our Confession calls them. If you’ll look back in verse 1 — “On the Sabbath, while He was going through the grainfields, His disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands.” They needed to eat. They were out traveling, doing the work of the Lord. The only way that they could get the food they needed was to do what they did. It was an act of necessity and it was perfectly appropriate according to the Lord Jesus Christ. So the Sabbath Day is a day of rest, but it's also, as Jesus makes clear, a day of worship (verse 6), and a day in which you do the deeds of necessity
It is also, however, a day in which we do deeds of mercy, and you see this in verses 8ff. Jesus is in the synagogue teaching; there's a man there with a withered hand; He calls the man up and He heals the man. It's an act of mercy. If God has shown us mercy, and if we worship God, how do you worship God best? When you act like He does. So is it appropriate to do deeds of mercy on His day? Yes! Jesus makes it clear.
When I went to Scotland, I was somewhat apprehensive about how the Lord's Day was going to be observed, because I had heard stories of how strict Scottish Presbyterians were. On the first Sunday night that I attended at St. Columba's Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, as I was walking up the stairs to walk across the street and go back to my flat, I was whistling a Psalm tune. And this large highland hand came down on my shoulder, and a man said, “Son, the Lord's Day is no' a day for whistling!” I was so excited about this that I immediately went back home and called my friend Duncan Rankin, here in Jackson, to say, “Duncan, you’ll never believe that I've just been rebuked for whistling on the Lord's Day! And it wasn't even a secular tune, it wasn't a Top 20 — it was a Psalm tune!” Now actually I was excited because I was glad to be somewhere where at least somebody cared about what you did on Sunday, because I grew up in a culture where nobody cared what you did on Sunday. You could do whatever you wanted to. And it was kind of nice to be in a place where they cared about what you did on Sunday. But I was still a little bit apprehensive about how the Lord's Day was going to be observed. And I found it a wonderfully refreshing occasion.
Perhaps the best example to me while I was there in Scotland of keeping the Lord's Day was a man named Neil McTaggart. He was the Clerk of Session of Holyrood Abbey, Church of Scotland. [They call them the “clark” of Session in Scotland.] Well, Neil would invariably have students — Neil and Ann, his wife — would invariably have students in their home on the Lord's Day and serve them dinner. Neil was the senior partner at one of the most prestigious law forms in Edinburgh, Balfour-Manson, and he was a godly elder. And after he and his wife Ann had served the guests, he would invite the guests to rest or fellowship, or even find a bed in the house somewhere and sleep until we had snacks in the afternoon before we went back to church. But he would leave the house and go to the local nursing home, and visit everyone in the nursing home. Now, these were not church members; these were not even necessarily Christians, but he just took it upon himself to visit that nursing home. What a great example of a man using the Lord's Day for deeds of mercy!
Well, this is how Jesus used the Lord's Day: worship; deeds of necessity; deeds of mercy. And He provides us an example of how to use our Lord's Day. J.C. Ryle, a century and a half ago, said, “It is only a few steps down from no Sabbath to no God.” In other words, our use of the Lord's Day is an index of our spiritual health. Is your Lord's Day caught up with worship and deeds of necessity and mercy and rest, or is it caught up with something else? Jesus’ example is instructive to us.
III. Who is Lord of the Sabbath?
But there's one last thing that I want you to see here, and it's the most important thing. It's who is the lord of the Lord's Day. Because in verse 5, you see the rest of the story in the first incident. I told you about Jesus responding to the Pharisees by telling them about David and Ahimelech and the showbread, but I didn't tell you the second thing that Jesus said to the Pharisees. First, Jesus had said Do you remember the story of David? Then He said this: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Now I've got to tell you, this is one of those places where I wish that Luke had written down what the reaction of the Pharisees was. For Jesus to say, “I am the lord of the Sabbath…” you understand what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying, ‘I created the Sabbath. The Sabbath is My day. The Sabbath is about Me. I'm the boss of the Sabbath. I'm the master of the Sabbath. I'm the lord of the Sabbath. What I say goes on the Sabbath, goes on the Sabbath. What I say doesn't go on the Sabbath, doesn't go on the Sabbath.’ I would pay good money to see the faces of the Pharisees when they hear Jesus say this! And, you see, that's the fundamental question. Who the lord of the Lord's Day is makes all the difference as to whether you’re actually keeping the Lord's Day. If the lord of your Lord's Day is the Lord, then it's a glorious day. But if the lord of your Lord's Day is you or someone or anything else, then it's going to be a miserable day.
When I was in Edinburgh, I coached the university basketball team, and there were a number of Americans on that team. And one of the members of that team was not a Christian. He grew up in another religion and in his home they did not observe Sundays. His particular religion observed another day of the week. And I got to know him pretty well. One day he was telling me about his childhood, and in the course of telling me about his childhood he told me how much he hated Sunday. He hated Sunday. He hated Sunday because the mail didn't come on Sunday. He hated Sunday because in the city that he lived in, most of the stores weren't open on Sunday. He couldn't go to the movie theaters on Sunday. And in the end, ultimately, he said, “You know, Sunday was just dead and boring.” And I started thinking about that. Sunday was miserable to him because he didn't love the lord of Sunday. And so the day was empty and boring and barren because he couldn't do the things that he wanted to do, because he didn't love the lord of Sunday.
And, you see, that's the real key to your Lord's Day. You want to enjoy the Lord's Day? The only way to enjoy the Lord's Day is to enjoy the Lord of the Lord's Day. That's the whole key to enjoying the Lord's Day. If you don't enjoy the lord of the Lord's Day, the Lord's Day is going to be miserable! If you want to be somewhere else, you’re not going to enjoy the Lord's Day. The Lord's Day is my favorite day of the week. I get up as early as I can; I stay awake as late as I can. It's my favorite day of the week. Is that how you feel about the Lord's Day? Or you just can't wait till it's over so you can get off to doing whatever else you want?
You see, it's real easy for us to look back at those Pharisees and say, ‘Oh, you nit-picky hypocrites…you legalists!’ But, my friends, our hearts can be just as wrong about the Lord's Day as theirs were if we don't worship the lord of the Lord's Day and enjoy Him more than we enjoy the pursuit of our own agendas and our own pleasures.
May God bless His word to our hearts. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for Luke's truthfulness in recording this history. Thank You for the Lord Jesus Christ and the way He protects the brethren against false accusations and sets us free to worship You in spirit and truth on Your day. Grant that by Your Spirit we would love You more than anything, and so enjoy the Lord's Day. We ask all these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
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